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Lawrence Lebduska

Lawrence Lebduska, c. 1930

Lawrence Lebduska, c. 1930

Photo by Alfredo Valente, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, Alfredo Valente Paper, 1941–1978

Born 1894, Baltimore, Maryland

Died 1966, New York City

Although born in the US, Lawrence Lebduska spent his formative years in Leipzig, training in stained glass and studying with the Czech scenic designer Josef Svoboda. When he returned to the States in 1912, he plied his trade as an interior decorator. But in the late 1920s he began to exhibit paintings, and by 1937 he was employed by the easel painting division of the WPA’s Federal Art Project. While some critics linked Lebduska to Henri Rousseau or folk art, he was not usually singled out as self-taught. That said, Alfred Barr included him in Masters of Popular Painting (1938), and Sidney Janis in his book They Taught Themselves: American Primitive Painters of the 20th Century (1942). Lebduska receded from view as folk and self-taught art increasingly diverged from mainstream narratives of modernism, but a resurgence of interest in the early 1960s provided a brief reprieve from the poverty and ill health of his later years.

The artist’s early training and experience in the decorative arts are evident in the complexity and chromatic harmony of his paintings. Lebduska painted interiors, nudes, and figurative scenes, but he was especially known for his brightly colored, fantastic landscapes featuring horses and other animals. While some of his landscapes feature expert perspective, others rely on stacked-up strata that highlight the flatness of the picture plane. His panoramas are studded with discrete, detailed creatures, and the lapidary arrangement of these elements as well as the solidified clouds that hang over his vistas reflect his background in creating stained-glass pieces. Similarly, the tiny flowers he paints in confetti-like fields or punctuating bursts recall the millefleur ornament of medieval tapestry.

Lebduska’s White-Belted Cattle of 1937 appeared in Masters of Popular Painting and was acquired by Walter and Louise Arensberg. The work is unusual in this couple’s storied modern art collection (which did, however, include Shaker furniture and non-Western objects). Also unusual is the painting’s subject: a small herd of striking Dutch Belted cattle standing in a stream framed by a thick jumble of shrubs on one shore and dainty flowers on the other. Introduced to America a century earlier and showcased as a rarity by P. T. Barnum in the 1840s, this dairy breed bears a distinctive white stripe around its middle. Their markings formally echo the layered division of Lebduska’s landscape, lending the canvas a surreal quality.


Jenevive Nykolak


Janis, Sidney. They Taught Themselves: American Primitive Painters of the 20th Century. Foreword by Alfred H. Barr Jr. New York: The Dial Press, 1942.